8 Handy Tips for Road Tripping on the Cheap

Road tripping across the country may be fun, but the costs can add up fast. Learn how you can save money on gas, lodging, food, and more!

Road trips have long been a summer tradition for many Americans. Getting in the car with the whole family and driving for hours is a great way to create vacation memories without the expense of a flight.

However, cheaper doesn’t always mean cheap. Gas prices may not be at an all-time high, but they’re still pretty expensive; plus, you’ll need to stay somewhere and eat something, which will cost you some of that sweet vacation dough. But if you plan out your trip in advance and use these expert tips we’ve compiled, you should be able to keep your road trip costs under control.

1. Plan ahead to minimize gas costs.

Other than the road and a driver, a car might be the most essential part of a road trip. But, and we know this might come as a surprise if you just woke up from 400 years of slumber, cars can be very expensive. Not just the purchasing of the cars itself, but maintenance, repairs, and of course, gas.

Depending on the distance, gas could easily be one of the most expensive parts of your road trip. But as the non-copyrighted knock-off slogan says, “an app exists for that purpose.”

Jessica Prouty of GasBuddy pointed how this (free!) app can help you plan ahead and cut costs:  “We list all the gas stations near you + real-time prices, so you know exactly where to fill up for the cheapest price. Super helpful for road trips! Drivers can also search for gas stations with amenities like air for the tires, restaurants, and clean restrooms.”

2. For vehicle rentals, go with the big guys. 

You could also consider renting a more fuel-efficient vehicle for the trip. If you are thinking of a rental car for whatever reason, you may want to consider this advice from Viktoria Altman, travel blogger at GoTravelTipster.com: “If you are renting a car, be sure to use a high-quality car rental service such as Enterprise, Avis or Hertz. Larger car rental companies have newer fleets which means you are less likely to have car trouble—the last thing you want on a family vacation.”

If you can get your gas costs squared away, that’s great! But you’ll probably get hungry on the drive …

3. Avoid restaurants by packing your own food.

Snacks are a classic part of the road trip experience. But eventually, you’re going to need something more substantial. It can be great sampling the local cuisine but you don’t want to break your budget on too many fancy roadside delicacies.

“Pick up food from supermarkets and roadside farm stands and enjoy a picnic,” suggested Altman. “Eating in restaurants is expensive, and picnics are one of the great joys of a family road trip.”

“Plan out meals,” Phil Risher, founder of the Young Adult Survival Guide, told us. “Plan when you will make/pack lunch or dinner and when you will eat out. This is important because we all have the best intentions to make food on a trip but it usually never happens. I get a loaf of bread and peanut butter to have a quick inexpensive snack or lunch.”

4. Pack lots of snacks and water, too. 

And remember those snacks we mentioned earlier? You’ll definitely want to make sure they’re packed in advance if possible.

“Pack snacks,” advised Alex Lauderdale, Transportation Analyst at EducatedDriver.org. “two dollars here and there for chips and candy adds up. Especially when you can purchase the same snacks in bulk at the grocery store for much less. So stock up prior to the road trip and take them with you.”

Additionally Lauderdale says to: “Bring water. Similar to snacks, a bottle of water will cost one-to-two dollars at a gas station, but you can get an entire case of water for a bit more than that at the grocery store. Same goes for cokes, bottled tea, etc.”

And now you’re getting sleepy. Very, very sleepy …

5. Don’t stay in a hotel. Go camping instead. 

You can only drive for so long before you’ll need a place to sleep. And you’ll also probably want somewhere to stay once you actually reach your destination.

Have you considered camping? It’s what Risher does: “Camp, if you can. Camping ranges from free to $50 a night for full hook up. Usually, a hotel starts at $100 a night. This was a simple way I was able to save $1000’s road tripping.”

It’s also what Altman does: “Instead of hotels consider camping some of the nights. You can buy or borrow the camping equipment and have a great time roasting marshmallows and hot dogs in the evening.”

6. Or just utilize apps and benefits for a better rate. 

But camping isn’t for everyone. You should look ahead online to see which affordable hotels still have good reviews so you aren’t stuck in a total dump. And you can use apps like Groupon or HotelTonight.

And Lauderdale offered another option to consider: “Use those AAA benefits. I’m a big fan of AAA for safety reasons, which can be particularly useful on road trips. But let’s not overlook the discounts. AAA can help you save on meals, hotels, and more.”

But don’t forget the activities!

7. Look into getting a pass.

Once you reach your destinations (or the destinations along the way) you’re going to want something to do. And ideally, it won’t cost too much.

“Look into CityPass,” suggested Lauderdale. “If you’re planning on road tripping to a big city, CityPass may save you big. Purchasing a CityPass gives you access to several of the most popular tourist events in a city at about a 50% discount.”

Risher advises a different kind of pass: “Get a National Park Pass. If you are under retirement age this costs $80, if you are over retirement age it costs $10 (I think). Regardless this allows you to go to any National Park and not pay the entrance fee of usually $35. These are relatively inexpensive places to visit and usually are really awesome places you have learned about before. Grand Canyon, Zion, Yosemite, etc.”

And frequency is another factor to consider. “Plan only one big activity per day,” recommended Altman. “Any more and you are likely to feel stressed out and overly scheduled. Planning one big activity per day costs less too.”

8. Walking tours are fun and cheap!

Finally, here’s a suggestion from Bernard Sury, one of the founders of GuruWalk: “Taking a free walking tour (or guruwalk) is a great affordable option during a road trip. Travelers can indeed give what they want at the end of the tour, according to their budget and the experience they had.

“On a road trip, we don’t usually spend a lot of time at each stop. In a few hours, you’ll have a very good overview of the city you’re visiting. You’ll also avoid tourist traps and receive local recommendations on how to save on accommodations, food, and activities. Moreover, as you never know what can happen on the road, these tours are a very flexible option as most of them can be booked online the day before.

“GuruWalk is an online platform with more than 700 tours based on tips in more than 210 cities around the globe. We’re opening new tours in new cities every week.”

And there you have it! All the tips you need for an affordable road trip. Now set sail for adventure! And if you want to read more about saving money on everyday activities, check out these related posts and articles from OppLoans:

What are your tips for a cheap road trip or vacation? We want to hear from you! You can find us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Viktoria Altman is a travel writer, photographer and blogger. She is a mother of two boys and lives in NYC with her family. You can read more travel tips from Viktoria on her blog GoTravelTipster.com or follow her on Instagram @traveltipster.
GasBuddy (@GasBuddy) is the free app that connects drivers with their Perfect Pit Stop, with real-time fuel price information, station locations, and offerings along with ratings and reviews. GasBuddy also helps drivers save money on every gallon of gas they pump with their Pay with GasBuddy program.
Alex Lauderdale is the Transportation Analyst and Senior Editor at EducatedDriver.org (@Educated_Driver), where he uses his wealth of career experience to educate readers and broadcast information related to the current status and future of driving, driving technologies, technology TCD (total cost to driver), driver safety, and gaps in between. When he’s not working, he loves being behind the wheel on the open road.
Avid traveler and expat, Bernard Sury is part of the co-founding team of GuruWalk (@guruwalk), a global platform of free walking tours based in Spain. You can reach him through LinkedIn.
Phil Risher is the founder of YoungAdultSurvivalGuide.com. Phil paid off $30,000 in student loans in 12 months making 48k. After, he saved up and bought his first place with cash at the age of 25. Phil now speaks with college students and young adults around the country about his 5-Step Guide to help them on their financial journey.

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